Jessica Pino, from Caracas, Venezuela, said when she heard Hugo Chavez had finally died in Cuba after his two-year battle with cancer, her heart was filled with joy and gratitude. Pino, who is pursuing her master’s degree in public administration at BYU, said she could not focus or concentrate for about five hours after she heard the news. She needed to savor the moment, yelling and celebrating with family and friends.
“We hugged and we knelt down and said a prayer of thanks,” she said. “We asked our Father in Heaven to please bless our country and take care of our people during this great time of uncertainty.”
A country left deeply divided after the death of President Hugo Chavez reflects on his tumultuous 14-year rule and looks forward with hope.
Many Venezuelans are relieved to see the end of Chavez and dream the country will break from his socialist policies as it begins a new chapter with the April 14 presidential election.
Chavez was born in a small village outside Sabaneta, Barinas, Venezuela in 1954. He graduated from the Venezuelan Academy for Military Sciences in 1975 and went on to launch a failed military coup against Carlos Andres Peres in 1992, which landed him in prison for two years. Four years after his release, he was elected president, then re-elected for six more years in 2000 with massive support from the poor working class. He planned to stay in power indefinitely after eliminating term limits from Venezuela’s constitution in 2009.
Venezuelan BYU graduate Marvi Villamizar was living in Caracas when Chavez came to power. She described his rise from the military and how he cunningly presented himself as a promising leader to end the long history of prior corrupt presidents.
“I feel like he deceived a lot of people,” Villamizar said. “He showed one side and then did something else. He said he was going to bring about change in one way, and then he didn’t, or even did something completely opposite. … He tried to win people over to get votes, then he showed his real face.”
Gustavo Rodriguez, a computer engineering student at BYU who lived in Venezuela for 12 of the 14 years Chavez was in power, said he “saw Venezuela become a country where corruption and violence increased in an alarming way.”
Many Venezuelans fled when Chavez was initially elected, because they knew that as opponents they would be in danger among his passionate supporters. Alejandro Leal’s family left Caracas for the United States in 1999 because they “knew what was going to happen to the country.”
Leal, a manufacturing engineering technology major at BYU, said he watched Chavez’s rule from afar and has found it disheartening to see the deterioration of his country. He said Venezuela is one of the richest, most beautiful countries in South America, whose unlimited potential has been suffocated by Chavez.
“It has petroleum, it has mountains, it has snow, it has deserts, it has jungles, it has beaches.” Yet, he explained, there is no progression, and the people in the country have been suffering. “I don’t think the people see it. People have gotten used to how things are.”
“From the outside, it makes my heart cringe because I wish I could go and be an asset to my country,” he said. “But in a way, the same country prohibits me from coming back.”
Chavez was known by many to be “Champion of the Poor.”
According to Villamizar, Chavez’s followers were the impoverished and uneducated who voted for the free goods they knew he would provide.
Rodriguez said he feels Chavez took advantage of the lower class, using his leadership skills and influence in the wrong way.
“Instead of using his skills to make Venezuela a better country, he took advantage of the great number of people with little education in Venezuela,” Rodriguez said. “His policies and ideals damaged the country very much during each of his 14 years of government.”
Because of Chavez’s policies, Leal explained, it could be easier for hardworking people in Venezuela to quit their jobs and live off the government. According to Leal, if a wealthy Venezuelan owns more than one home, the unoccupied second home is completely at risk of being repossessed. If an unoccupied home or piece of property is taken over by an impoverished family or individual, it cannot be reclaimed by the owner. Chavez’s government would defend the underdog in virtually every situation.
“What I’ve seen that I don’t support is that Chavez would do everything for the people that are not willing to progress in life,” Leal said, explaining that he understands in certain circumstances the government must help the needy. However, “they don’t really teach self-sufficiency.”
Villamizar said when she visited Venezuela in 2011 for the first time since 2002, she found the changes in her country “shocking.” She was greeted by socialist banners lining the highways, and she found Caracas deeply divided by political tension.
“Socialism is being promoted left and right, and if you’re not with Chavez then there’s a lot of consequences,” she said.
She said some of her friends lost their jobs because they did not support Chavez. It was easy to tell who was on which side, because socialists wore the color red on their shirts and hats. Supporters viewed Chavez as their hero, while his opponents were “fed up” and ready to leave the country.
Kirk Hawkins, associate professor of political science at BYU and author of “Venezuela’s Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective,” said Chavez was an extremely polarizing leader because, as a populist, he saw politics as a struggle between good and evil. He successfully portrayed his opponents as sinister, intentionally conspiring against the “ordinary” people of Venezuela.
“When you see politics in those terms, it’s very hard to take the middle ground. It’s impossible,” Hawkins said. “So you either loved Chavez or you found yourself demonized by Chavez, and you would react to that with a lot of frustration and angst.”
Hawkins said that as a charismatic leader, Chavez not only fostered support in his followers, but devotion. His supporters believed he was divinely called to be their president. Although many of Chavez’s polices were not well-designed, according to Hawkins, his intention was always to help the poor, and for that, he was loved by many.
Hawkins said the extreme political divide in Venezuela will make democratic cooperation very difficult for the future government, no matter which party the new leader comes from.
Since Chavez came to power, Villamizar said, he cut off all relationships in oil and in the private sector with international companies and organizations, nationalizing everything in Venezuela. These decisions led to many of the economic woes the country now faces despite its large petroleum reserves. The minimum wage is so low and cost of living so high in Caracas that in order for a family to pay rent for a small apartment, three to four family members must work full time, she said.
“Chavez was good at prioritizing the poor, but he became worse and worse over time at using the money wisely,” Hawkins said, calling his economic legacy “mostly negative,” as he left Venezuela with a large deficit and high inflation.
Pino said she believes Chavez had the chance to make a significant change in the country because he had the support of a huge population of people whom he “fooled.” Yet, she said, he still failed.
“He failed as a human being, because he showed no respect for those who opposed him,” she said. “He failed as a leader because Venezuela, a wealthy nation and beautiful territory, has never been in such terrible conditions, with crime, corruption and standard of living at such pitiful levels. The only thing he was successful at was deceiving and wasting resources. He was successful at enriching himself and his family with the wealth of our nation.”
Villamizar said, to a certain extent, she sees parallels between the United States’ current direction and the path Venezuela took under Chavez.
“As far as Obama goes, there have been a few times where I’ve heard him speak and when he delivers his speeches it almost reminds me a little bit of Chavez when he would deliver his speeches and present his message in more of a socialist way,” she said, specifically citing Obama’s stances on healthcare and immigration reform.
However, she said she believes differences in the U.S. government would prevent it from ever reaching Venezuela’s state.
The election in Venezuela takes place April 14, and will determine whether Nicolas Maduro (Chavez’s vice president) or Henrique Capriles will be the country’s next leader. While Villamizar called Maduro “Chavez part two,” Rodriguez holds high hopes Capriles will win and turn the country around.
“I know that he will give all he has to end all the corruption and violence in Venezuela,” he said.
Whoever the new president may be, Leal said he only hopes he will help the people of Venezuela become independent so they can lift their country instead of relying on their country to lift them.
“I just hope that they see the faith that people of other countries have for them,” he said. “I wish Venezuela had the blessings that the United States has, but it really all depends on the people.”